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Clients join the crisis chorus

Civils 2002

Higher pay and better education are urgently needed if the UK is to emerge from the skills crisis, say clients. Andrew Mylius reports.

Workload is on the rise, say construction clients, but they can't find the staff to deliver it. A whopping 72% of clients, both public and private sector, say workloads rose last year. At the same time, it has become more difficult to recruit engineers of all grades.

The story echoes feedback from consultants and contractors which predicted recruitment problems would only become more acute, when NCE polled them on skills shortages affecting the industry earlier this year (NCE 17 January and 21 February). Almost three quarters of respondents to a new survey of the client sector predict it will become increasingly difficult to find staff with a decent education, relevant experience and the right skills to deliver future projects.

Nearly a third of clients confess to 'critical problems' attracting chartered engineers, senior engineers and specialists, jeopardising their ability to carry out design, procurement and contract preparation, and to manage or supervise projects. A further 59% describe the difficulties faced in finding chartered engineers as serious - the dearth of senior engineers is almost as grave at 52%.

Shortage of graduate engineers also causes major concern: close to 60% of clients say recruitment problems are serious and a quarter say they are critical. Just 3% say they have only moderate problems recruiting. Not one claims there is 'no problem'.

Pay offered by clients is good in comparison with that from consultants and contractors. But average salaries offered by clients of £18,250 for a graduate, rising to just £27,350 for a chartered engineer and £31,750 for a senior engineer, are hardly irresistable to engineers feeling jaded with the profession. For 80% of engineers in client organisations, annual pay rises are in line with inflation but no greater.

Despite the mediocre average pay, there are better salaries to be earned in the client sector: a handful of respondents pays a £40,000 starting salary for chartered and senior engineers, with one major private sector firm offering up to £60,000. On the flip side, however, some clients are holding out a woeful £11,000 to graduates and wondering why nobody is biting. Engineers with 10 years or more in the industry are limping along on £20,000, and senior engineers are being asked to work for as little as £24,000.

Over half of clients believe improving pay is crucial to the long term future of engineering, with an additional 41% saying improved salary scales are important. Evidence is, however, that few are following words with actions.

A survey of NCE readers in December revealed that 75% of engineers believe they are overworked and 82% feel undervalued. All but 25% have considered leaving the industry at some point in the last 12 months.

Poor pay is only a part of the problem faced by the engineering sector. Some 93% of clients want to see an overhaul of the school curriculum, with far greater emphasis placed on the teaching of physical sciences.

Students are failing to consider engineering because so little importance is attached to these subjects at school.

At the same time, clients complain that basic standards of education are falling: finding staff with adequate basic skills - literacy and numeracy, for example - is a problem for 21% of clients.

Poor communications skills are an issue for 34% of clients.

Tuition on degree courses in the practical aspects of engineering should also be radically improved, say 86% of clients: 94% think there should be closer links between the industry and education and 72% feel that there should be better funding for university courses. Nearly a third of respondents complain that degree courses have equipped job applicants with inappropriate skills or are simply substandard; 31% say new recruits have little understanding of the construction industry and 41% cannot find staff with appropriate on-site experience.

Acting on their convictions, 34% of clients have links with schools, 21% regularly visit universities, 28% sponsor students through further or higher education, and 69% offer students work experience during gap years or holidays.

Clients show commitment to staff development - three quarters have an ICE or equivalent approved training scheme, 59% operate a mentoring scheme, and an impressive 86% of clients offer staff flexitime or the option of working from home. On average, it takes engineers just over five years to become chartered, with some organisations helping their staff to attain CEng status in as little as three years. Two respondents said they take on school leavers, training them through to CEng over 10 years.

In-house training is not enough to fill some significant gaps, though. There is huge demand for design staff, with two thirds of clients facing serious shortages and 17% suffering from critical shortages. Scarcity of staff with technical expertise is an issue for 72% of organisations - those with highways, traffic management and signalling, transportation, coastal, civil and structural skills are particularly sought after.

A quarter of clients are critically short of personnel with project management skills, while another 55% say shortages are worrying. A further 45% cannot find staff with more general management experience. Half of all respondents are struggling to find staff experienced in health and safety or procurement. And 28% are looking for people with business and financial skills.

To attract and retain staff, client organisations must improve training and opportunities for personal and professional development, respondents say.

Strong emphasis is laid on recognising staff for their efforts and achievements, and on job satisfaction. A massive 90% believe engineers must be offered faster career progression before they will seriously consider joining and staying in the profession - engineers generally work for five years before they get the chance to manage a project. A small handful can expect to take up the reins in as little as two years.

Equal opportunities initiatives, company or site culture and working conditions play a relatively minor role in securing a high calibre workforce, respondents suggest.

Clients on average have 13% women and 4.5% ethnic minorities on the payroll - hardly impressive. And closer scrutiny shows that a small number of organisations are skewing the figures: one twentieth of clients employ 40% women, a tenth employ 30% and a further tenth employ 20%. By contrast, 15% of clients employ no women at all in their engineering departments.

Meanwhile, 3% of respondents say that ethnic minorities make up more than a quarter of their workforce. A tenth have 10% or more ethnic minorities on their staff. But 15% admit that just 1% of staff are from an ethnic minority background, while 17% employ no ethnic minorities at all.

However, evidence suggests that equal opportunities employment policies go hand in hand with rapid career progression and high pay to deliver clients with competitive commercial performance: Clients, particularly in the private sector, which have made a mark with innovative procurement and profitable business operations, are consistently those which employ the highest proportion of ethnic minorities and women, which offer staff most opportunity to realise their potential and which reward them for their achievements.

INFOPLUS There will be three live debates on the skills crisis at Civils 2002, 11-13 June, at the NEC, Birmingham. Leading industry figures will be squaring up for robust discussion on attracting school children into the profession, training and pay, with opportunities for participation from the floor. If you would like to attend contact Jackie Whitelaw, e-mail jackie. whitelaw@construct.

emap. com, indicating which subject(s) you are most interested in.

To find out more on the skills crisis visit the archive at www. nceplus.co.uk/magazine.

For more details about Civils or to pre-register visit www. civils.co.uk.

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